Opera techniques help musician make flute sing

Performer: Phenomenon Emmanuel Pahud joins the BSO for performances tonight, tomorrow and Sunday.

January 07, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When attempting to describe the warm, lustrous sound Emmanuel Pahud produces with his flute, some reviewers find themselves dipping into the vocal music vocabulary. Take, for instance, this review from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which lauded Pahud for "blending the delicacy of an art song artist with the power of a prima donna."

As it turns out, the analogy is pretty close to the mark. As the 29-year virtuoso explains, part of the secret behind his rich, creamy tone is that he relies on many of the techniques opera singers employ.

"I think very much about resonance, into the upper part of the body and into the head. Just like singers do," he says.

Pahud, who will be performing flute concertos by Mozart and Doppler with the Baltimore Symphony this weekend, is one of the instrument's rising stars. The Swiss-born musician joined the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as principal flutist at age 23 and since then has built an impressive career as a soloist, a meteoric rise that has earned him comparisons to the likes of flute legend Jean-Pierre Rampal.

Thanks to his work with contemporary compositions, Pahud has an unusual command of his instrument. "I can basically make any kind of sound on the instrument -- maybe more than 100 different sounds that are not the normal sounds that the flute is supposed to produce," he says. Even so, it's the warmth and sonority of his tone that has earned him the greatest accolades.

Many flutists have an airy and bird-like tone, offering a lot of strength but fairly limited color. "The flute is the only wind instrument where you do not blow into the instrument, but on top of it," explains Pahud. "So it has an open character in the sound, and this leads very often to a breathy or a dirty sound. It's of course our job to make it clean.

"Now, the problem is, the people who try to make it clean, make it clean for themselves onstage, and then the sound doesn't project," he adds. "It sounds very small in the hall." When Pahud plays, he pays close attention to the sound reflected back from the auditorium, so he can gauge what the listeners are hearing.

But he also makes use of his body in shaping the color of his instrument's tone. Much as a singer will shift between a "head" voice and a "chest" voice, Pahud also exploits the natural resonance of the human body.

"The fact that we have no resistance from the instrument -- you just put the flute to the wind, and it speaks -- makes it the closest, technically, to singing," he says. "Because [singers] also don't have any resistance to fight against. They have to create that resistance with the muscles around the voice box.

"And it's the same thing for us. We [flutists] have no resistance on the instrument. We make the resistance with the lips by closing the embouchure. And this is how, I think, that both techniques are actually very similar."

Pahud says the production of sound on the flute is not unlike blowing across the top of a bottle, using the shape and position of the lips -- what musicians refer to as embouchure -- to control the flow of air. But unlike brass or reed instruments, where muscle strength is crucial to the quality of a player's embouchure, the flute requires more in the way of stamina. "It's like athletes running the marathon instead of running the 100-meter hurdles," he says.

Pahud adds that he was not taught to think like a singer when playing his flute. "This is something I discovered gradually, maybe by having different teachers," he says. In recent years, the technique has begun to be included in some flute programs, but even then, it's not always immediately grasped.

"When I teach master classes, I always try to get [the students] to use the kind of air support that Cecilia Bartoli uses in her staccato in the Rossini arias, or in the virtuosic Pergolesi or Vivaldi arias," he says. "Because it's so helpful for the staccato on the flute. It's exactly same kind of technique.

"Very often, [the students] know how to do it without the flute. But then when you put the flute in their hands, they just don't think and react the same way."

Still, this kind of technical mastery doesn't occur overnight. "It probably takes more than 10 years to feel very comfortable on the instrument," says Pahud. "I started having an idea of my sound after 10 years, but I really developed a certain sound, and was conscious of, after 15 years. It takes a long time."

BSO performance

What: Emmanuel Pahud, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

When: Tonight and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: $22, $28, $34, $40 and $57

Call: 410-783-8000

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